Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Dawning of the Day . . . an Irish song and the strange tale of a sunken city off the coast of Co Louth

There are many strange tales in the myths and folklore of Ireland. One, several variants of which can be found in different localities, concerns the idea of a city or village beneath a lake or the sea. Sometimes, as in the legend of the mysterious island of Hy Brazil, the underwater realm becomes visible once every seven years. An extraordinary deluge tale was once recounted in the folklore of a fishing village called Blackrock (Na Creagacha Dubha), on the County Louth coastline near Dundalk.

A wonderful photo of the breaking dawn at Blackrock beach by Barry Kieran.
This village, which mostly fronts on to Dundalk Bay, faces out across the restless waters, offering its residents lovely views of the Cooley Mountains, whose undulating peaks roll out eastwards into the Irish Sea.

Blackrock's flood lore relates to a local version of a well-known song called Déalradh án Lae, 'The Dawning of the Day', written by James Clarence Mangan.

A note appended to the song in a manuscript by transcriber Nicholas O'Kearney says: "This song is founded on a tradition prevalent among the people in the vicinity, that an ancient city, with fine land adjoining it, are seen every seventh year by the fishermen off Blackrock shore near Dundalk. The bard, remembering the legends of Gerald Iarla in Mullach-Elim, and O'Neill in Aileach, considers the appearance a favourable sign for Ireland's liberation."

"It may have happened, time out of mind, that a city and land in this part of the Island were encroached on by the sea. A great causeway, built with huge mountain stones, has been traced from Dunany to Cooley Point, a distance of more than seven miles across the Bay of Dundalk . . . The old people used to tell many stories of the inhabitants of the enchanted city, and assert that some of their offspring still live at Blackrock."

Here is Mangan's translation of the song:

'Twas a balmy summer morning
Warm and early,
Such as only June bestows;
Everywhere the earth adorning,
Dews lay pearly
In the lily-bell and rose.
Up from each green leafy bosk and hollow
Rose the blackbird's pleasant lay,
And the soft cuckoo was sure to follow.
'Twas the Dawning of the Day!

Through the perfumed air the golden
Bees flew round me:
Bright fish dazzled from the sea,
'Till medreamt some fairy olden
World-spell bound me
In a trance of witcherie.
Steeds pranced round anon with stateliest housings,
Bearing riders prankt in rich array,
Like flushed revellers after wine-carousings—
'Twas the Dawning of the Day!

Then a strain of song was chanted,
And the lightly
Floating sea-nymphs drew anear.
Then again the shore seemed haunted
By hosts brightly
Clad, and wielding shield and spear!
Then came battle-shouts—and onward rushing—
Swords and chariots, and a phantom fray.
Then all vanished; the warm skies were blushing
In the Dawning of the Day!

Cities girt with glorious gardens
Whose immortal
Habitants in robes of light
Stood, methought, as angel-wardens
Nigh each portal,
Now arose to daze my sight.
Eden spread around, revived and blooming;
When . . . lo! as I gazed, all passed away—
. . . I saw but black rocks looming
In the dim chill Dawn of Day!

I'm not entirely sure whether this old song is related to the one very well known in modern times as sung by the likes of Mary Fahl (see video below). Luke Kelly sang Patrick Kavanagh's poem 'On Raglan Road' to the air of 'Dawning of the Day'.

With thanks to Barry Kieran for permission to use his beautiful photo of Blackrock.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Quote about the Celt from Irish poet W.B. Yeats

A lovely quote from the Irish poet W.B. Yeats about Celtic people. This is from the introduction to Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, which was published in London in 1888.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Magical light over the Emerald Isle - Winter Solstice aurora borealis shines over Newgrange

With the Winter Solstice here, and the shortest days and longest nights having arrived, the aurora borealis (northern lights) treated us to a timely and magical display over Newgrange tonight. I hope I have captured some of this magic for you to enjoy. Happy Winter Solstice from the Boyne Valley!
Newgrange and Mound B (left) with an emerald green sky filled with winter solstice aurora tonight.
Green is the Irish gold . . . northern lights over Newgrange on the longest night of the year.
The bright green bands of the northern lights viewed from Red Mountain, with Newgrange to the lower left.
Emerald Isle . . . green aurora with the Plough over the Boyne river and canal at Newgrange tonight.
The aurora subdued after a while but the green still made for a great contrast with the orange clouds.
Bright green auroras shine over the Boyne Valley on winter solstice 2015.
A faint band of green to the right of Newgrange.

A message from Newgrange and Mythical Ireland on the shortest days of the year

There is a thought that sometimes manifests in my head when I think about the convoluted history of my people. In the stillness of the evening, standing alone at some monument of antiquity, I wonder if it was the sheer beauty of the landscape that made my ancestors stay here – those who were the first to arrive after the ice retreated, and those who later survived imperialism, starvation and poverty.
The world is a big place, and the human race is a migratory species. There were other places these ancestors could have gone to. But they held on.

The forces and factors that kept them here may be the same ones that make me a captive of this wondrous island. Ireland's landscape is lush and fertile. It is beautiful and enrapturing. Many places have an otherwordly placidity about them, even today.

In modern times, there is a tendency to over-rationalise and analyse, such that a landscape that has always been seen as somewhat magical and austere is reduced to something functional and banal. I suggest we refuse to occupy that space. Let us open up to a mystical vista.

Over the past few years in particular, I’ve spent a lot of time at Newgrange, the place most associated with the Tuatha Dé Danann in mythology, known variously as Brugh na Bóinne, Síd in Broga, Síd Mac Ind Oc and the Palace of the Boyne. It’s lovely spending time out there on my own.
I find it such a pleasurable and peaceful and introspective experience. I wrote about this in Newgrange: Monument to Immortality. I can go there, and can feel that, although I am only miles from home, I might have ventured to far distant otherworlds beyond the senses.

I expect that plenty of other people have spent time alone in the evening at Newgrange, but I hardly ever see anyone out there at night. I like it that way.

Newgrange . . . a sacred place with a message for today.

With the shortest days and longest nights upon us, in this, the season of the winter solstice, it would be nice now to think about how we first arrived into Ireland, and how our own journeying here perhaps reflects some of the other journeying going on in the world right now.

In Ireland today, our story is the same as it has always been, since the first days after the ice age. It is a story of comings and goings, of arrivals and departures. Dublin Airport is a great metaphor for Irish mythology and history. There are always people arriving, and always people departing. Some are going on holidays. Others are leaving forever.

How we arrive into Ireland is central to the nature of our belonging here. This is something the late John Moriarty realised and wrote about. Do we descend upon this island from a cloud, wrapped in a mist, like the Dananns? Or do we sail across the rough seas, like the Milesians, with their flotilla of ships – a Spanish Armada of the prehistoric world – to take Ireland, in an act of jealous longing, a rapacious conquest, driven by vengeance?

If we do that, we will never belong here.

I’d much prefer to descend into Ireland in a mist, from the stars, and set my foot gently upon her soil, wrapped up in the Féth Fiada with Manannán by my side. That way, my arrival might take place unknown, so that I could gently tiptoe across dew-covered grasses into some otherworldly copse, and there enchant my every thought with the newfound joy of arrival into an earthly paradise.

I would much prefer this to a Milesian arrival. From a distance of nine waves, as a Milesian you come in sturdy ships, beating drums of battle, and unfurl your banner of war, your standard of conquest.

But no nation ever conquested in spite or by subjugation or force could afterwards live a peaceful existence.

So I urge you to come like the Tuatha Dé Danann. Come in a mist. Arrive magically. And ask Eriú, gently, if perchance you can stay awhile, and dance and sing upon her carpet of tender green, and write joyous words and sing merry songs about netherworlds concealed in the ditches and vales of her beautiful quarters.

And I urge you, as the light creeps up through the dark womb of Newgrange into her cold interior, to think about the fact that, as an Irish person, you are just a visitor to this wonderful place. In essence, you are a migrant. We all came here from over the sea. As a human, you are a born traveller.
And if you arrive into Ireland, Danann-like – magically – you will know, as they did, that there is always room for others. This solstice, let’s share a little bit of that midwinter illumination, for the world of mankind is often dark, and right now it could do with a little bit more of that magical light.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Pledge to the king: unless the sky shall fall with its showers of stars on the ground, we shall not give ground

The fighting Irish . . . this is a quote from the famous Irish mythical epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. The Ulster heroes declare this to king Conchubhar when he calls upon them to leave a battle in order to meet an attack in another part of the field.

Heaven is above us,
and earth beneath us,
and the sea is round about us.
Unless the sky shall fall with its showers of stars on the
ground where we are camped,
or unless the earth shall be
rent by an earthquake,
or unless the waves of the blue sea
come over the forests of the living world,
we shall not give ground.

Read the entire Táin Bó Cuailnge here.

Mystery site - possible monument in heart of the Boyne Valley discovered by artist Richard Moore in 1999

In the summer of 1999, artist Richard Moore asked me if I would like to see a strange site that he had discovered in the heart of the Boyne Valley. It sounded intriguing. "What kind of site?" I asked. He said he didn't know, but that it was located in a place where it wouldn't be easily seen by archaeologists, and he said that as far as he could tell nobody knew about it but him.

The chance of an adventure into the Boyne Valley involving a mysterious unknown site, possibly an ancient monument, was indeed too tempting. So we agreed that the following weekend, we would go out there and I would bring my camera and he would bring his artist's sketch pad. The site is located on interesting terrain - a very steep forest-covered hillside that runs down to the Boyne river. It was difficult to access - even in dry weather. It can only be described as a semicircular man-made feature set into the side of the hill. There were stones forming a distinct semicircle that appeared to create a revetment. It is possible that the area within the semicircle has some sort of flagging stones on its floor - we certainly saw one large flat stone there, and there may have been others.

Richard Moore sketching the mystery site, which is covered by fallen trees. You can just see the Boyne through the trees.
It's all so long ago now that I can't remember a huge amount about it. Without expert knowledge, I can only speculate that it might have either been some sort of holy or sacred well (now dry) or that it might have been some sort of shrine. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that this is a relatively modern construction, but the archaeologists will confirm this one way or the other. One problem on the two occasions we visited was that the feature was partially covered by fallen trees, and apart from the semicircular stone wall, there was little else to be discerned.

We did, of course, report the find to a couple of archaeologists at the time. However, at the time of writing this blog it appears this possible monument is not on the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR). A major reason for that is undoubtedly the fact that the site is in a location that makes it very difficult to access - and it's hardly likely to have been noticed by many people over the years. In fact, on my first visit (we were there twice; on the second occasion I slipped and fell on the wet incline and wounded little more than my pride!), I remember thinking "how the hell did Richard find this place?"

It was located on private land, and as always, Richard had sought the permission of the landowner to access the land. How he ended up on the site of a steep and somewhat treacherous bank in a forest suggests that he has an intrepid spirit that urges him to go beyond the call of normal duty in the search of new things to paint. Below are some more photos of the site:

The site viewed from above.
Richard Moore points to a stone with a stick to add a sense of scale to the site.
A large flat stone which might have been some sort of flag stone on the floor of the feature.
Another view of the site showing how partial subsidence has concealed it.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Not among the Newgrange winter solstice lottery winners? Watch this fantastic video of the event

If, like most people, you are not among the winter solstice lottery winners who will have exclusive access to the chamber of Newgrange next weekend, then fret not. Because this fantastic video by Paul Kelly shows the sunlight streaming into the passage and chamber, and it's set to beautiful music that will enchant you and put you into a mystical mood!

As we count down to the shortest days of the year, in a week's time, the light of the rising sun will start to enter the roofbox over the entrance doorway at Newgrange and shine into the passage and chamber. As someone who has witnessed it directly, I can tell you that it is a beautiful moment. Paul's video captures the event marvellously. We thank him for making this very special video.

An image from Paul Kelly's wonderful Newgrange solstice video.

The Hill of Slane - where Christianity met prehistory

To me, the Hill of Slane represents the place where Christianity met prehistory. Saint Patrick is said to have lit the Paschal Fire here in 433AD, bringing the flame of Christianity to a very pagan Ireland.

Celtic cross headstones at Slane.
The photo on the right shows two headstones in the cemetery on the Hill of Slane which are based on a Celtic Christian Cross design. This cross, to me, represents the conjunction of Christianity and whatever spirituality existed when it arrived. I see in the Celtic cross the cruciform shape that is inherent in the major passage-tombs of the Boyne Valley, which probably predate Christ by three and a half millennia. And the inclusion of the circle of the sun in the centre of the cross is just another representation of the chamber of Newgrange - where sunlight intersected the centre of the cross in spectacular fashion on winter solstice over 5,000 years ago.

One thing that seems obvious when you walk up the eastern side of the Hill of Slane (which is the only way to get to it!) is that the monuments and remains relating to Christianity dominate, and that the "pagan" remains - which lie further up the hill on the summit - are shrouded by trees and are largely obscured from view.

The dominant feature from prehistory is a mound or motte, said in local lore to the burial place of Sláine, a king of the Fir Bolg. In the summer time, it is virtually impossible to see the mound, but in winter when the foliage is gone from the trees it is possible to get a look at it.

The mound of King Sláine is located shrouded in trees in the middle of this view.
Richard Moore and I wrote about this mound in Island of the Setting Sun in 2006, suggesting that it might possibly be a passage-tomb dating from the Neolithic. In recent years, ground-probing archaeological techniques have been employed at the mound to try to determine if there is a possible structure within. To date, the results are inconclusive.

The motte of King Sláine is very interesting for another reason. It marks the point of intersection of two ancient alignments of sites. We call these the Brigid alignment, or the Brigid's Way, and the Patrick alignment, which I prefer to call "Patrick's Equinox Journey".

The Brigid alignment connects Saint Brigid's birthplace at Faughart with her monastery in Kildare through a 67-mile straight alignment of sacred sites, which include Saint Brigid's Well at Faughart, the barrow cluster on Mount Oriel, the motte of King Sláine on the Hill of Slane, the Hill of Tara and the Curragh, where Brigid was said to have grazed her cattle, and which is located beside Kildare town where she founded her monastery. This video explains how the Brigid alignment was discovered:

One thing that should be obvious about the Brigid alignment is that it must predate Christianity because it involves many prehistoric sites. Indeed we find that Brigid was venerated as one of the Tuatha Dé Danann long before Christianity came to Ireland.

When Saint Patrick landed at the Boyne Estuary (ironically in the same place as the Milesian spiritual leader Amergin had reportedly done over two millennia previously) he made his way towards Slane. Richard Moore and I have documented an equinox alignment involving Millmount in Drogheda (another motte, said in local myth to be the burial place of Amergin) and the motte of Sláine. If you trace the line of this alignment on a map, it continues through Kells and on past Loughcrew, through the Cruachan Aí complex towards Mayo. In Mayo, the alignment follows the route of the Tóchar Phadraig, the pilgrim route from Ballintubber Abbey, through Aughagower, and eventually it lands exactly on the peak of Croagh Patrick. Is this apparent arrangement of sites from the east of the country, where Patrick landed and lit the Paschal Fire, to the west, where he battled with the demons, a coincidence? And indeed some thought must be given to the age of the alignment and its possible pre-Christian significance.
Hill of Mael in County Westmeath . . . on the Patrick alignment.
It may yet be that Slane's importance in the wider landscape is not yet fully understood. The Hill of Slane is the dominant feature in the landscape viewed from the east. From Slane (although the view is obscured today by trees), the dominant features to the west would be Loughcrew and Hill of Mael. The latter, which has a very impressive monument of unknown date on its peak, is exactly on the alignment. From there, one can imagine the possibility that the pyramidal peak of Croagh Patrick might just be visible on a very clear day . . .

The Hill of Mael viewed in Microsoft Bing maps.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Get up close and personal with the entrance kerb stone at Newgrange - without leaving your armchair!

This video shows the entrance kerb stone at Newgrange (known as kerb 1) in great detail, and allows you to view the carvings on the stone without actually having to be there. It was made by the Discovery Programme and the technology used to create the scan was an Artec EVA close range scanner. You can view the stone's famous triple spiral and the other Neolithic carvings in high resolution.

Modern technology is probing the ancient Boyne Valley landscape in ways that the archaeologists of the 20th century could only dream. The above video shows just one aspect of how that is taking place. People in the furthest parts of the globe can see the 5,000-year-old carvings at Newgrange without leaving their home - in fact, without even leaving their armchair.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Fabulous new 3D images by Kerem Gogus show Ireland's Stonehenge as it might once have been

A new depiction of Ireland's Stonehenge at sunset around midwinter, by 3D artist Kerem Gogus.
I am delighted to unveil new 3D-generated images showing Ireland's Stonehenge as it might have looked, created by 3D artist Kerem Gogus. These new images are based upon the only known depiction of a lost monument - a magnificent structure that probably dated to the Stone Age and could be considered Ireland's equivalent of Stonehenge - sadly now destroyed. The only drawing of this great embanked structure of concentric stone circles was made by the antiquarian and astronomer Thomas Wright, in the 1740s. Since then, the monument was destroyed, such that it was thought to have been lost completely until its "footprint" was found on an aerial photo of the Carnbeg area outside Dundalk, Co. Louth, in 1988.

The monument at Carnbeg brought to
life by in this new image by Kerem Gogus.
With only Wright's drawing to go on, Kerem made a couple of images about a decade ago showing what the stone monument might have looked like. But this week, following my revelation that some of the largest stones of the monument might actually be buried beneath the soil where they once stood, the Dundalk Democrat newspaper wanted to do an article about this discovery. Their reporter Ian Cameron contacted Kerem and he agreed to make new images, which give us the first conceptual overview in high resolution of how this monument might have looked if we could transport ourselves back in time. The images give us a unique glimpse at a unique monument. As a result of Kerem's fantastic work, we are able to visualise this once dramatic man-made construction.

The monument consisted of two concentric stone circles surrounded by an embankment with a ring of huge stones outside.
Here is an extract from the article in this week's Dundalk Democrat newspaper about the monument:

Thomas Wright's 18th century drawing
of the monument.
While doing research over the years, he [Anthony] read that some of the smaller stones were taken away and used as gate posts. He believes it should be possible to locate even some of these in the area. Old stone gate posts are easy to spot and quite rare these days. Other smaller stones were sadly broken up to be used as material for roads. The Armagh road (now known as the R177) effectively cut through the site.
“The road was not there in the 1740s when Wright made his drawing. As far as I can ascertain, this road was built in the 1750s (maybe some of your readers might have more information about the exact date of construction?) and would undoubtedly have led to the part destruction of the monument.
Dundalk Democrat's article.  
“For years, I've believed that all of the stones were either removed or broken up. But I've discovered a source (Bassett's Louth Directory from 1886) that says some of the larger monoliths (all but one) were buried: ’Most of the rest were dropped into holes sunk behind them, and covered at a sufficient depth to escape the plough’. For me, that's very exciting news. It means there's a possibility that the largest stones - at least some of them - are still there. It might be possible, using archaeology, to ascertain how many are still there, and there's even the tantalising possibility of discerning potential solar and lunar alignments of the site, which was described in the early 20th century by historian Henry Morris as having been an ancient 'school of astronomy'."
Anthony also believes the site could present a viable and successful tourist attraction for Dundalk once it has been fully investigated and potentially restored.

Another of Kerem Gogus's wonderful new 3D images showing what Ireland's Stonehenge probably looked like.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Newgrange and the return of the Tuatha Dé Danann

I wake up some days and I wonder what we started when we left the forests and turned away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle towards organised agriculture and monument construction. It was the beginning of modern civilisation, and perhaps the beginning of real conflict between humans. It was a brave but perilous step, emerging from the woods, and clearing land so that we could state in stone and earth something of our cosmology and our spirituality and of our meagre understanding of the great metaphysical mysteries. These questions do not have a time frame. They are relevant today just as much as they were in ancient prehistory:

Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Why are we here?
Where is here?
What is out there?
Why do people die?
What happens to us when we die?

Sunlight enters Knowth's western passage at the autumn equinox.
I've come to believe that the stone monuments of the Neolithic embody those questions. Their construction was an attempt at understanding - or at least attuning to - some of these mysteries. The mythology of the great monuments of Newgrange and Dowth speaks of the desire to control time on behalf of the gods or kings. If you could measure time, and elucidate some of the complex patterns of the sky, perhaps you could open a vista into deeper mysteries.

There has been a lot of speculation - some of it valid - around the idea of monuments as portals. Do passage-tombs such as Newgrange offer access to hidden realms - realms of consciousness or spirit? Realms of the gods? Detached from the sense world, in the darkness of the interior of Newgrange, do you hallucinate, seeing the geometric shapes that are carved onto the stones of the monument? Trance-like, do you meet the ancestors?

In ancient times, people brought the fragmented remains of their ancestors into these chambers and carefully, lovingly, placed them there in the obvious hope that out of their remains would spring new life - perhaps a life eternal, in other realms. These realms are spoken of in mythology.

In the myths, the gods wage war against each other. There are two battles of Moytura. Eventually, in the second battle, the "good guys", the Tuatha Dé Danann, win out against the "bad guys", the Fomorians. When you witness the magic of the winter solstice light in Newgrange - as I have done - and you see that beam of sunlight piercing the darkness, you begin to realise that that was what the journey of the ancient world was all about. It was about the defeat of darkness by light.

Winter solstice light in Newgrange. © Paul Kelly.
But the light of the Tuatha Dé Danann waned when the Milesians came from Spain. The Tuatha Dé Danann went underground, so to speak, agreeing to occupy the sídhe while the Milesians took sway over Ireland. They weren't defeated as such. They made an accord with the Milesians and vanished into the sídhe. But this was not their defeat, nor their end. In accessing the sídhe, those portals to other realms, they were guaranteeing their survival. And the lasting folklore of the Tuatha Dé Danann is that they will return. In fact, some folk prophecy states that they will return for one last great battle, some end-of-the-world scenario, some apocalypse, and that they will be victorious.

So what does all this mean in practical terms, if anything? Were the rumours of a coming return of the Tuatha Dé Danann (and sometimes other great mythical and historical figureheads, such as Fionn Mac Cumhaill or Gearóid Iarla) founded upon the wishes of a repressed and depressed people - an Irish population that had been beaten, downtrodden and starved by centuries of cruel occupation? It is likely that that is part of the tale.

However, there is something about these people of light that makes them endure and endear. They represent our hopes for a better world, those unquenchable hopes that, out of darkness, light will spring. We imagine the return of Lugh Samildánach to Tara, or we envision Aonghus Óg emerging from the great sídhe of Brugh na Bóinne, to reveal himself once more to the world. We should not lightly discard mythology as mere fairy tale. Joseph Campbell said: “Myth is much more important and true than history.” Myth offers a window into the human spirit, our core nature. We venerate the Tuatha Dé Danann(1) as manifestations of our light and compassionate aspects, those facets of our being with which we would bring about a peaceful, harmonious and just world, where the very best aspects of humanity would be allowed to flourish. Equally, we acknowledge the presence of the Fomorians, as manifestations of our tyrannous and malevolent aspects, those facets of humanity that would see the world destroyed and allow human suffering to endure. In world myths, the conquest of darkness by light is a recurring theme. This is unsurprising. The myth with light versus darkness at its core is an enduring myth of hope - hope that we will vanquish the dark side of our nature once and for all.

Newgrange before excavation, when the
light could not reach inside.
Newgrange slept for four millennia - its kerb and entrance concealed by the stones which slipped down off the cairn and sealed it shut. It was "reawakened" in 1699 when the entrance to its passage was rediscovered, and more significantly in the 1960s when it was excavated and its solstice alignment and illumination revealed to the world. Now, hundreds of thousands of people visit the monument every year. The Tuatha Dé Danann are reawakening.

But let us not make the mistake of creating a religion out of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Let us not make them gods or messiahs. Rather, let us make them symbols or metaphors for the reawakening of our own best aspects. In the constant turmoil of a sometimes baffling human existence, where we do the most horrendous things to one another, let us acknowledge that the power to bring about positive change lies entirely within. To create gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann is to engage in a circumvention of our own power, a cop-out in which we declare that the gods have the power, and that they control our destiny.

The truth of the mytho-prescient folk belief in the future return of the Tuatha Dé Danann is that we should not wait at the doorways of the sídhe for the unlikely emergence of some spectral forms in our desire to prevent a cataclysm. Joseph Campbell also said, in The Power of Myth:
“Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us. This is the great realization of the Upanishads of India in the ninth Century B.C. All the gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other."
In choosing to allow the Tuatha Dé Danann to manifest within us, we are saying yes to heaven and no to hell. We are inviting the metaphorical image of light to transform into a practical reality, a living embodiment of our own goodness, so that we might prevent the Fomorian forces of darkness from bringing us to the brink of destruction.

Newgrange, with its reconstructed portal, reminds us that the
light can and will return.
The prophecy of the re-emergence of the Tuatha Dé from the sídhe should come as no surprise. In a world where darkness often appears to get the upper hand, we need Newgrange to serve as a reminder that the light can and will return - gloriously - and that the darkness is not unending. Imagine that for centuries, and more likely millennia, the winter solstice light was unable to enter Newgrange, because its structural stones had slowly subsided under the weight of the cairn, and the light was cut off. And yet, 5,000 years after it was first constructed, a miracle happened - the light began to shine brilliantly in the cold interior of the monument once again. So too will a miracle happen with the Tuatha Dé Danann. Countless centuries after they retreated to the sídhe, they will re-emerge. This is a metaphorical miracle - our own good nature must re-emerge, and as a species we must find a way to get along with one another. What other choice do we have? In a world constantly under threat from the forces of darkness, should we just retreat to hidden realms and allow the darkness to abide without challenge?

With Newgrange reconstructed, the portal is now open. It is up to us to call the Tuatha Dé Danann from the sídhe, to make them manifest within us, to ensure that, as the prophecy states, they will be victorious.

(1) It should be said here that the mythology of the Tuatha Dé Danann is not all filled with goodness. There are battles, and murders, and there is retribution (for example, the Fate of the Sons of Tuireann). However, in a broad sense, the Tuatha Dé Danann are seen as beings of light, and because of the complexity of themes in their story, especially those involving retreat and hibernation for some future awakening, we judge them as the best representation of our hopes for the re-emergence of goodness within us.

(Note: This blog post is a development of some of the themes explored in this previous post).

Monday, 30 November 2015

Ceremonial dismemberment and excarnation in prehistoric Ireland - a different way to treat the dead

For a while, I've been wondering about how the small human bone fragments that have been found in some Irish passage-tombs came to be in such a fragmented condition. In terms of the unburnt bone human fragments found during the O'Kelly excavations at Newgrange, "apart from some complete hand and foot bones, all human specimens consisted of small fragments". (O'Kelly, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, Thames & Hudson, 1982). 
Replica of basin stone from Knowth's eastern chamber with bone fragments.
There were a total of 750 unidentifiable fragments. The fragmented remains of dozens of individuals were found in the chambers of nearby Knowth. Layers of fragmented remains were found in the passage and chamber of Fourknocks. So how do human bones - those that are not cremated - become so fragmented?

Searching through my extensive archive of research material, I found an interesting article from the Sunday Times from July 2003. Eileen Murphy of Queen's University Belfast had studied Irish neolithic bones and found that our early ancestors had dismembered and defleshed their dead. Murphy had worked on the excavation of graves in Aymyrlyg graves in Siberia, Russia.

There she learnt to look for the tell-tale signs of what is thought to have been an ancient religious practice - short, fine scraping marks on the bone and cuts where tendons and ligaments were joined.
"After studying the dismembered and refleshed Russian remains, I decided to have another look at Irish neolithic bones. It is something that has been overlooked before and will now require a reassessment of our understanding of these ancient burial sites.
The researchers from Queen's made the findings when examining bones from the 4,000-year-old Millin Bay tomb in County Down, and the discoveries mirrored those found by Swedish archaeologists at Carrowmore in Co. Sligo. The Sunday Times article described how body parts, notably skulls, are thought to have been kept on display for religious purposes.

Gabriel Cooney, professor of archaeology at University College Dublin, told the newspaper:

In these tombs you rarely find single skeletons, but rather groups of cremated remains. In this way these neolithic people would seem to have been creating a new identity from their treatment of the dead. You also find different parts of the body treated in different ways, such as unburnt parts of the skull in with cremated remains. This would point to dismembering of the corpses.
Were the Brugh na Bóinne bones defleshed by humans or
by the process of natural outdoor excarnation?
Not all corpses were dismembered by other humans. The process known as excarnation, or defleshing , is well documented. This involves leaving the human corpse out in the open (sometimes known as sky burial), or in a cave, for the elements and wildlife to assist in the process of speedy decomposition and dismemberment. Some "excarnation sites" were outdoors, while others were in caves. It is estimated that a human corpse left out in the open can be reduced to a pile of bones in a matter of weeks or months. However, there seems to have been a deliberate effort made, in some cases, to slow down the process of excarnation by leaving a corpse in a cave.

A chance finding of a bone fragment in a cave at Knocknarea in Sligo led to the discovery of more bone fragments belonging to an adult and a child which may have been evidence of cave excarnation. Radiocarbon dating put the age of the bones at over 5,000 years old. It is thought that the process of excarnation in a cave took much longer - perhaps up to two years - but eventually the deceased's relatives would come back to collect the bones for burial elsewhere. In the case of Knocknarea, this burial might have taken place in one of several monuments on the top of the mountain.

We can imagine, therefore, that Stone Age people in Sligo between 5,000 and 5,500 years ago carried the corpses of their dead up the mountain. After an arduous climb, they then squeezed through the narrow cave entrance, and laid the dead person on the cave floor. (Source)

What's also interesting in Ireland is that osteoarchaeological analysis has revealed an absence of animal scavenging marks, suggesting that the entrance to the excarnation caves was sealed during the process of soft tissue decomposition.

This reveals a conscious decision not to speed up decomposition . . . By creating a protective environment in which excarnation took place undisturbed, people controlled the process, pace and space. The living may have sought to observe the slow and gradual disintegration that was taking place inside a cave. The underground was therefore a place of transformation, which in turn transformed caves as places. It may have been in caves that the journey into the spirit world commenced. (Dowd, Marion, The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland, Oxbow Books, 2015, p. 106)
Flint blades from Newgrange - were these used in the defleshing process?
There are no caves in the vicinity of the great passage-tombs of the Boyne Valley. It would be interesting to postulate on how the fragmented unburnt remains there - and indeed at nearby Fourknocks - came to be in that condition. Of course another question that begs to be asked is how many of the flint scrapers and other flint tools found at Newgrange and other passage-tombs were used in the defleshing of human remains . . .

Friday, 27 November 2015

The huge monoliths of Ireland's Stonehenge were buried

Monument was thought to have been completely destroyed some time between 1748 and 1907

However, some of its largest stones might have been buried

For years I have been drawing attention to a monument, sadly destroyed, which has been dubbed 'Ireland's Stonehenge'. This was a remarkable and unique monument consisting of several concentric circles of stone, surrounded by a large earthen embankment, all of which was encompassed by ten enormous monoliths.

Ireland's Stonehenge was documented by antiquarian and astronomer Thomas Wright in 1748. His drawing is the only known representation of this once great monument, which was located in a townland known today as Carn Beg, not far from the town of Dundalk, in the north of County Louth. I first wrote about Ireland's Stonehenge in 'Island of the Setting Sun' in 2006.

A 3D recreation of the stonehenge (right) by Kerem Gogus.
This huge monument vanished from existence some time between Wright's drawing and brief description of it in 'Louthiana' (1748) and the construction of the Drogheda to Portadown section of the Dublin-Belfast railway line in 1855. Historian Henry Morris, writing for the County Louth Archaeological Journal (CLAJ) in 1907, gave us a tantalising insight into what the monument's purpose might have been when he wrote: "I have read or heard it stated somewhere that this place was the site of a school of astronomy. Its position on the plain, with a semicircle of mountains around would enable an ancient astronomer to observe and mark the places where the various heavenly bodies appeared on the horizon at different times of the year." Regrettably, Morris was unable to recall the source of this valuable detail.

Wright's all-too-brief description of this remarkable monument, from Louthiana.
Not long after Wright's drawing was published, the Armagh Road was built, probably in the 1750s, and there can be no doubt that this was a significant factor in the destruction of the stone henge. I overlaid Wright's drawing of the monument on to Google Earth imagery of the site and this makes it obvious that at least some of the monument was flattened for the purpose of the new road.

A crop mark of the monument on
a CUCAP photo from 1970.
I remember reading somewhere (although I cannot now recall the source) that the smaller stones were taken away and either broken up to be used as foundation material for roads, or were used as gate posts. Henry Morris could find no remains of the monument in 1907, saying that it was "Gone! Cleared away, its very site not exactly known". (For much more information, and sources, see Island of the Setting Sun - In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers, chapter 5, 'The Giant Rings'.)

It wasn't until 1988 that the exact location of Wright's druidic temple was finally rediscovered. Archaeologist Victor Buckley was able to discern the monument's "footprint" in an aerial photograph which had been taken in 1970 for the Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photographs.

There was some archaeological resistivity was carried out at the site in 2006, in advance of a proposed housing development which never happened once the Irish economy collapsed. Standing at the site, which is now part of a disused golf course attached to a hotel, it is very difficult to get any sense that it was anything other than a field. There are simply no stones remaining. None.

However, I've recently discovered something significant about what might have happened to the large stones - or at least some of them - in the most unlikely of sources.

Reading George Henry Bassett's 'Louth County Guide and Directory (1886), we find that early on, he makes reference to the area's antiquities:
The remains of antiquity are very numerous, and extend through every part of the county. They continue in very much the same condition that they were found more than one hundred and twenty-five years ago by Thomas Wright, author of Louthiana. His work was instrumental in stimulating the curiosity of many of the residents of the county in regard to the precise nature of the contents of the Danish and Irish forts and Druidical camps.
In this work in progress, digital artist Kerem Gogus has fantastically recreated
Ireland's Stonehenge in 3D based on Thomas Wright's 1748 drawing.
And here comes the most valuable information pertaining to what happened this once marvellous monument:
It had not the effect, however, of preventing a tenant, near Dundalk. from effacing the Druidical circle at Ballynahatna. Of the ten stones which were said to represent the generations from Adam to Noah, only one now stands in the original position. Most of the rest were dropped into holes sunk behind them, and covered at a sufficient depth to escape the plough.
This is most interesting. Bassett says that instead of bring broken up, like the smaller stones, the large ones were dropped into huge holes to bury them. This is quite exciting as it leads to the possibility that at least some of these large megaliths are still there - buried where they once stood. Perhaps this is information which might lead archaeologists towards further investigation of the site at Carnbeg?

Further reading: Ireland's Stonehenge

Note: I am indebted to Kerem Gogus, the 3D artist, for all the effort he put in to recreating Ireland's Stonehenge so that we might get a better sense of what it looked like. Visit his website here:

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Field Names of County Louth and Meath

I was delighted to receive a copy of The Field Names of County Louth as a gift today. It joins my copy of The Field Names of County Meath as part of my ever-expanding reference and research library. These are both high-quality, comprehensive publications.

My copy of The Field Names of Louth, received today, alongside the Meath book.
Many fields in Ireland have names. These books are the culmination of a long period of research and fieldwork. As the preface of the Louth book suggests, "a  wealth of information not previously recorded and in danger of being lost in the sands of time has been gathered by our labourers in the field".

Here I will give you just a flavour of this wonderful tome, from a little section about Fairies:

The fairies are an enduring feature of Irish folklore. The Irish word for the fairies, sí, originally meant a mound. The inhabited a timeless otherworld, but they could slip between that world and this one when they so desired. There has been a long association with the fairies and natural hills, as well as prehistoric cairns and burial places (Ó hÓgáin 2006, 206). Three local versions of the name 'fairy hill' were recorded by the LFNP. They are Cruk Shee (Cnoc Sí) in Knockatober, Crogh Shee (Cruach Sí) in Baltrasna, and Crockshee (Cnoc Sí) in Haggardstown. This latter example is in fact an Anglo-Norman motte castle. Hills and mounds associated with the fairies often are sites of supernatural occurrences, like strange music.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Awaiting my salvation in Fiacc's Pool beneath Rosnaree

The following is from a chapter I wrote recently for a book that I've started writing, about Irish mythology and in particular the myths concerning the great monuments of Brug na Bóinne near where I live. The exploration sometimes has a personal and philosophical nature which reflects my interaction with the myths of the Boyne Valley. These myths have become a source of fantastic and all-pervading influence and inspiration in my writing.


Dramatic skies over Brug na Bóinne.

Bless me father, for I have sinned.

What is your sin?

I have forgotten the old ways, the ways of my ancestors.

The old ways are dead, my son. You must learn the new ways.

The old ways are not dead. They are merely sleeping, in the belly of a fish that swims beneath the nine hazels of Segais. I will wade out into the water now, towards Fiacc’s Pool, and there await the coming of my salvation.

No-one can come to the Father, except through me.

I do not wish to come to the Father. I wish to come to myself. I wish to some to myself through imbas, and to know myself in a way that I have never known myself. I will wait for the salmon, at Fiacc’s Pool. And in the dim Wood of the King beneath Rosnaree, I will become Finn, wanting to be with my ancestors at Brug na Bóinne. And Finegas the wise will teach me poetry beneath Knowth, while we wait for the Bradán Feasa.

I cannot help you any more.

Thank you for trying.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Cry of the Sebac and the survival of ancient wisdom

Over the past few years I've taken a great interest in the creatures of Irish myth. Among the animals that have great significance in the ancient mythology of Ireland are the bull, the cow, the pig, the swan, the salmon and the hawk. I've been greatly taken by the old story of Fintan mac Bóchra, said to have been the lone survivor of the great flood when he fled to Tul Tuinde and swam in a cave in that mountain in the form of a salmon, later transforming into an eagle, and then a hawk. A similar tale is told of Tuan mac Cairill, the sole survivor of the Partholonians, who relates the story of the Lebor Gabála (Book of Invasions) to St. Finnian of Moville. Tuan transforms into a swan, a boar, an eagle and finally a salmon. As a salmon, he is caught and eaten by the wife of Cairill, who gives birth to him again in human form so that he may recite the early history of Ireland.

Thus the personages of Fintan and Tuan come to represent the idea of the embodiment or survival of ancient wisdom. Fintan is the one to whom the people of Ireland turn for advice in The Settling of the Manor of Tara, when there is confusion as to how the lands around Tara should be divided up.

There are many characters, themes and narratives from Irish mythology that have inspired me in the writing of my latest work of fiction, a novel. This novel was completed earlier this year and was proofed and edited and is currently being considered for publication by a Dublin publishing company. The transformed druid in the guise of a bird of the air serves as a very vivid archetype for me, and one that I have borrowed for this latest work.

The novel is tentatively titled 'The Cry of the Sebac' - sebac being the Early Irish form of seabhac, a hawk. This hawk relates how he has survived since the appearance of the first humans in Ireland after the retreat of the ice, and tells of his dramatic survival of the inundation in a cave in a cairn on the top of Tul Tuinde. He has lots of advice for a young boy whom he befriends. The novel is set in modern Ireland, but the hawk is very definitely a voice from the ancient world:
“One person can be more powerful than an entire army,” said the hawk. “That’s what Manannán represents – the power of one man to repel a whole battalion of enemies. They say that Manannán controlled the waves. He had learned to love the ocean, and all its murky and impenetrable parts, and all its harsh noises and bitter storms, and all its creatures, marvellous and grotesque, even down to its lowest depths. And when he learned to love even its most hideous and abhorrent parts, he became the ocean. Manannán and the sea were one. Thus, he was able to drive back the Fomorians, terrible and despicable and powerful as they might have seemed. They had no might that could match him. He was the indefatigable and undefeatable enemy. He was everywhere, and that was terrifying for them. Become the storm, and you will change the world.”
Following the hawk's advice to the boy, the youngster, in a trance-like state, perhaps reminiscent of a shamanistic dream, has a conversation with an unknown entity:
A familiar voice called out to him, softly.
“Why have you come here?” it said.
“I have come here to live forever,” he replied, after just a moment’s thought.
“It’s not your time. Why else did you come here?”
“To hear the Great Song.”
“What power brought you here?” the voice asked.
“The power of my own mind, which has existed since before I was born.”
“What did you bring with you to this place?”
“Nothing, except my imagination, and my soul bird.”
“Your soul bird?”
“Yes, he is the Sebac Gaoth, the Hawk on the Wind, the one who has lived beyond memory. He sees my thoughts and interprets my dreams.”
“And what dream do you have?”
“To heal the world.”
“But you’re just a boy.”
“One person can be more powerful than an entire army,” he replied.
“How did you calm the storm?” the voice asked.
“I didn’t calm the storm. I AM the storm.” 
The antediluvian druid-bird is there to convince the boy that he is the 'Little Flame', a light for the world. And he encourages the boy to become the Samildánach, the many-gifted hero of light:
“So then, young flame keeper, the Samildánach who can see beyond obscure horizons . . . are you ready to look beyond all the known horizons, to a place in the unendurable darkness where the magnificent light will be made to shine again?”

Monday, 23 November 2015

Descend into Ireland in a mist . . . arrive magically

Inspired by the writings of the late John Moriarty, I included the following words in a talk entitled 'The Tuatha Dé Danann - They haven't gone away you know' to the Brigid of Faughart Festival in Dundalk earlier this year.

Descend in a mist . . . arrive magically.
I’d much prefer to descend into Ireland in a mist, from the stars, and set my foot gently upon her soil, wrapped up in the Féth Fiada with Manannán by my side. That way, my arrival might take place unknown, so that I could gently tiptoe across dew-covered grasses into some otherworldly copse, and there enchant my every thought with the newfound joy of arrival into an earthly paradise.

I would much prefer this to a Milesian arrival. From a distance of nine waves, as a Milesian you come in sturdy ships, beating drums of battle, and unfurl your banner of war, your standard of conquest.

But no nation ever conquered in spite or by subjugation or force could afterwards live a peaceful existence.

So I urge you to come like the Tuatha Dé Danann. Come in a mist. Arrive magically. And ask Eriú, gently, if perchance you can stay awhile, and dance and sing upon her carpet of tender green, and write joyous words and sing merry songs about netherworlds concealed in the ditches and vales of her beautiful quarters.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The synchronicity of the swans

Recently I've found that my senses have come into sharp focus around certain mythical imagery associated closely with the Boyne Valley area. In my spare time, I'm doing some study and research which has taken me towards examining the metaphor and symbolism of myth. This has yielded interesting results. I explained to a friend this week how I seemed to be engaged in an interesting process of following "hunches" and "leads" and that this process almost always bears fruit.

When dealing with the area of science versus mysticism, I can, by and large, only deal with my own direct experiences and how they have forged my thoughts and beliefs around the whole question of the rational versus the esoteric. Currently, I am agnostic. The best and simplest definition of my agnosticism I can offer is this - I neither have proof in the existence of a god or an afterlife, or of other worlds and other realms of spirit or consciousness; nor do I have proof that they don't exist. I remain very open-minded. I am grateful for this open-mindedness. It prevents me from blindly following a path of enquiry without considering the alternatives. Recently, my work has focused on the alternatives.
The sun setting above Rosnaree overlooking the Boyne river.
I have been experiencing synchronicities - strange and wonderful coincidences and happenings - since the very beginning of my researches into myths and monuments years ago. I initially thought them to be what Richard Moore and I called "spooky coincidences" but over the years I've come to see them less as something to be scared of and more something to be enthralled and inspired by. My own experience has been that when a synchronicity occurs, it's like an affirmation that I'm on the right track with something.

But is all this just some sort of mystical woo? Is this just me indulging in some new age wishy-washy nonsense? I don't think so. And I'm glad to quote Philip Freund, a novelist, poet, short-story writer, documentary film writer, television dramatist and playwright as well as essayist, literary critic and anthropologist. Freund was a man described in his obituary as a "true polymath". If ever there was somebody who embodied the persona of the Samildánach - the many-gifted - it was Freund. Here's what Freund has to say about science and intuition, which brings us back to the subject in hand:

The history of science is filled with instances of noted workers in all fields who testify in their memoirs that a "hunch," a perhaps inexplicable ray of light, suddenly led them to a major discovery. Is it Newton under the apple tree, or Galvani watching his wife cook frogs' legs? Some of these invaluable "finds" seem to have been pure accidents . . . But what inspires the author of a scientific hypothesis to choose one route, one direction of approach, rather than another, when many offer themselves with equal persuasiveness to him or confront him with an equal opacity? Whence comes the "hunch," what directs the "ray of light," the seemingly lucky chance that without warning illuminates the right dark path to be followed?  (Myths of Creation, Peter Owen Publishers, [1964] (2003), p.280.

I was walking the dog on Friday night, going to collect my sons from football. As I walked along on a very cold, icy night (the first of this winter), I thought about all the research I've been doing lately and how it all seems to have produced fascinating insights. A great deal of this research work has surrounded stories about animals and mythic creatures. A great deal of it involved following hunches and intuition. And a great deal of it yielded interesting results. A thought came into my head, along these lines:

"You've really hit on something here, Anthony. This is the sweet spot".

Just as I thought that, I heard what might have been children's voices in the distance. I looked along the road, half expecting to see my sons and their friends coming towards me. But the road was deserted. There were no cars and no people at all, which is unusual because it's normally a very busy road.

Again I thought I heard a voice or two, but this time they were above me, so I looked up instinctively, and caught sight of a formation of eight whooper swans flying southwards, directly over my head.

The significance of this beautiful creature (for those of you unfamiliar with the myths of Newgrange) is that the whooper swan has been wintering at Newgrange for a long time - quite probably since before the monuments were built there 5,000 years ago. Some of the predominant myths about Newgrange, and the supernatural characters associated with it, involve swans. The most famous of these is the Aislinge Óenguso, the Dream of Angus Óg. See the Cygnus Enigma for more about the swan.

Were these eight swans among the first to arrive into the Boyne Valley for the winter of 2015? Every winter, thousands of whooper swans come to Ireland from Iceland, landing en masse in Donegal and then diverging into smaller groups to winter at various sites on the island. The area around Newgrange is an important wintering ground. It regularly sees more than 50 swans in winter, making it one of the predominant sites for the whoopers.

Just this afternoon I received an SMS text message from a friend of mine who keeps a close eye on things out in the valley. Over the past few winters he has been keeping me informed about the arrival and departure of the whooper swans. This is what I received from him today:

Whoopers at Knowth Anthony. About 8. Just arrived.

I smiled when I received it. And of course the first thing to come into my mind was the thought that perhaps these were the same eight that had flown over my head on Friday night . . .

So I feel inclined to continue following these lines of mythic research that are opening up before me. There is something in the mythology of the Boyne monuments that begs to be explored, deeply and extensively, and open-mindedly, because they are more than just stories. I believe they contain an essence of what the monuments were all about, and an insight into the mind of distant ancestors. Are these stories at all relevant today? Absolutely. They are a revelation - a vista into the soul itself, and I don't believe it's at all coincidental that this mythology has survived from time immemorial to tell a story to the people of today.

The process of mythic investigation has been an epiphany for me, a process of recondite introspection that has been at times both intimidating and riveting. It's brought me right into the centre of my own story on this planet . . . the reason I am here.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Only the guardian of Fourknocks knows its true name

Inside the ancient stone chamber of Fourknocks, a seemingly small yet very impressive monument of the late Neolithic, there are a number of intricately carved stones, some pristinely preserved.

The lintel stone above the western recess at Fourknocks.
The modern visitor is able to see, at close quarters, the careful work of Neolithic artists, people who lived and died in a remote age, when only the most basic technologies were afforded use by human hands. At Fourknocks, the lozenge (diamond) and the zigzag predominate. The angular manifestation of the glyphs is curious. There is one stone, above the passage, bearing concentric circles, and another - the original entrance lintel - bearing a rough spiral, among other curious designs. Most of the other decorated stones are devoid of curvature, containing the distinct angles of diagonal and serrated patterns.

The stones of Fourknocks demand from us an answer, an answer to an unanswerable riddle - why is the spiral, so predominant at Brug na Bóinne, almost absent from this wondrous little passage-tomb, and why do the angles predominate? We can only answer the question with a question:

Who can know?

I have a theory. But that's all it is - a theory. Unfortunately, we cannot travel back in time to speak with the artists of the New Stone Age, whoever they were - farmers, astronomers, poets, priests or magicians. So we have to make do with our own speculations, and our own vivid imaginations. My theory is that the absence of the spiral is directly connected with the absence of the sun. No sun can shine into Fourknocks. Its passageway points to a place in the far north, some 15 degrees (approximately) east of north. No sun can enter into its cold interior. Fourknocks, whatever its other purposes might have been, was definitely not a solar observatory; not in its own right at least. (There are other mounds in the district, and who knows what secretly oriented chambers they might contain?)

The spiral is a convenient and potent symbol representing solar movement. Over the course of the year, the sun appears to wind a series of contracting and expanding spirals in the sky. At Newgrange, the great entrance stone, facing the sunrises on winter solstice, is adorned impressively with huge spirals, one of which appears to end in a line that seems to point in towards the entrance to the cave, perhaps beckoning the sun to "enter in here".

The "guardian" stone of Fourknocks, said to represent a human face.
There is no such theatrical meandering spiral at Fourknocks. Here, we see zigzag lines and diamonds, almost exclusively. Almost. There is one stone that stands out above all others. It is one of the chamber orthostats, positioned just to the right of the passageway as one looks out from the chamber. It is said, by some, to be a crude representation of the human face. Not having access to the artist, or the instruction manual from which he or she was working when they carved it, I can neither agree nor disagree with this contention. There are more angles, and diamonds, and curves. If it's a face, it's a strange one. And yet I find myself drawn to the idea that it is a type of "guardian" stone, if such a concept even existed when these structures were built 5,000 years ago. There is a stone in the western passage of Knowth that has been said, by some, to represent some type of guardian. It has an almost owl-like presence - the owl being the Cailleach of the night, its call often attributed to the Bean Sídhe, the woman who cries out before death. As a place of burial, Fourknocks might have needed just such a presence - a woman of the sídhe to watch over as the souls of the deceased crossed over from this world to the next.

Fourknocks is indeed a sad place. When it was excavated in the 1950s by P.J. Hartnett, the remains of at least 21 children were found, along with burnt and unburnt remains of adults. By the time its period of use was coming to an end, the entrance passage had been filled almost to the top with material, with three separate layers or deposits of human remains. The passage was deliberately blocked up. It was intended that Fourknocks be sealed off. And so it was . . . until the 1950s.

It is a sad fact that all of the burials/deposits were removed during the excavation. There is a sense that the monument has lost an aspect of its sacredness, that the final resting place of so many people would later be stripped out so that nothing of the burials remains.

In being sealed up, Fourknocks shares a history similar to that of Newgrange (which points towards it, incidentally). Archaeologists maintain that Newgrange was sealed for the best part of 4,000 years, until Charles Campbell and his labourers rediscovered the passage entrance in 1699. Fourknocks lay concealed in the landscape for a long time. Because it likely did not have a stone vaulted roof and thus it didn't have a large cairn covering it, it was lost to time. The name Fourknocks is said to be derived from the Irish na fuarchnoic, meaning "the cold hills". But I don't buy it. It doesn't "feel" like an authentic name for a complex of ancient monuments. And this I think its real name has been lost to time. Local historian Brendan Matthews once proposed to me the possibility that Fourknocks was derived from the "four cnocs", meaning the four cnocs or artificial mounds. That seems more plausible to me than the cold hills.

The proximity of Fourknocks to Clonalvy tempts me into looking for a link there. Clonalvy is from Cluain Ailbhe, the meadow of Ailbhe, whoever she might have been. It might also be connected with the Delvin River (Ailbine). I am curious about the mention of a possiblity that Clonalvy was the location of a monument called Lia Ailbhe, a huge standing stone described as the "chief monument of Brega", until it fell in 999 and was broken into four millstones by Máelaschlainn, the high king. That seems like an avenue worthy of research . . . for there is something that has been nagging away at me for years that is telling me to find out the real ancient name of Fourknocks.

Perhaps only the guardian of Fourknocks knows its real name?

(I will deal with some aspects of the angular art and connections to the cosmos in another post).